On Monday, the UK moved into completely unchartered territory.
The Government rolled out its track-and-trace smartphone app in the Isle of Wight, which it hopes can provide a good testing ground for extending the technology – and preventing future outbreaks of Covid-19.
This experiment has been inspired by South Korea’s approach.
Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, its leaders have been hailed for their innovative and proactive thinking, resulting in the country reporting no locally transmitted cases of Covid-19 last week.
Given its proximity to China, the source of the outbreak, that is an incredible feat.
Key to South Korea’s success has been what we now know as “contact tracing”, which the country achieved through a two-pronged approach.
It set up free drive-through and walk-in centres, where tests could be conducted in 10 minutes and results sent out within 24 hours – and used GPS to monitor who’s infected, and who they’ve met.
The Korea Centre for Disease Control, a government organisation, is in charge of the process.
If one citizen becomes infected, an alert of their movements is sent (along with the timings) to a network of people they’ve been in close proximity to. That way they can get tested and self-isolate, too.
Though the South Korean approach undoubtedly works, it goes almost without saying that the UK is a completely different country. And though many Britons are optimistic about using its strategy, it’s worth understanding some of the main challenges we face as we roll out the contact tracing.
South Korea launched its application before Covid-19 hit
The first major consideration – in trying to work out how effective contact tracing will be – is that the UK is not at the same starting point as South Korea in rolling out the technology.
South Korea began developing its testing programme before its first confirmed case of Covid-19 – having prepared heavily since the MERS outbreak of 20105.
This meant that, by early February, South Korea’s first test was approved.
Its proactive method is arguably why it has only seen 900 cases during its peak.
To put that in context, the UK had 3,985 lab-confirmed cases yesterday – several days after Boris Johnson announced we had gone past the peak.
Matt Hancock has said widespread contact tracing will take place by the middle of this month.
The logic for this date apparently comes from an artificial intelligence study – by the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).
It has predicted patterns of when the pandemic will end in many countries. And estimates May 9 for the UK.
It’s impossible to tell exactly what the number of cases will be then.
But the difference between this figure, and South Korea’s when it started its programme, may influence the efficacy of contact testing.
We Brits may have different attitudes to privacy
One aspect of contact tracing that has proven controversial is the use of people’s information.
Though South Korea’s approach has been revered, one imagines some of its techniques would not go down too well in the UK.
Health authorities can, for instance, use CCTV footage, credit card transaction data and travel information to monitor people.
And, despite the app having private elements – it only uses the gender and age category of those on the system – there have been criticisms that other users can easily identify who people are through peripheral information.
One way that this can be gleaned is through detailed logs of people’s movements, such as the businesses and areas they visit. Some of this information will be highly personal – trips to the lavatory, for instance.
It is reported that overnight stays at “love motels” have been recorded.
The UK’s system is much softer in relation to privacy, not least because it doesn’t use GPS, since breaches privacy laws in many democracies.
Like Australia and Singapore, the UK’s contact tracing is operated by Bluetooth.
This uses anonymous keys – that hide a person’s identity and location, merely alerting others to whether they have crossed paths.
Even so, what’s angered activists is that the Government will use a centralised database to collect information.
They are concerned that this will give the State too much control over personal data, as well as meaning hackers can attack the system – accessing masses of information.
To make matters more complicated for the Government, there has been something of a split in Europe around this issue, with others opting for a decentralised system of contact tracing (allowing users to manage and see data).
Germany had also planned to use a similar system to the UK, before opting for a “strongly decentralised approach”.
Defending the UK’s decision, Dr Ian Levy, Technical Director of the National Cyber Security Centre, has said that the “NHS team have worked hard to properly protect privacy and security”, pointing out that the app stores no personal information and “doesn’t collect your location”.
He also adds that “any delay in isolating people who are showing symptoms has a real effect on the spread of the virus” – so it makes sense for the NHS to take control of the process (via centralisation).
Other proponents of centralisation may argue it has an epidemiological rationale, allowing the NHS to trace the Coronavirus is spreading across the UK.
Even so, the list of opposing arguments to centralisation is growing (more are outlined here in Guido Fawkes)…
There are potential technical problems with the app
Another potential problem for the Government comes from a technological perspective – its contact tracing app might stop tracking in some contexts.
Similar Bluetooth apps in other countries, like Australia, have reported that the only way to make it work is for users to keep it active and on-screen – not possible when they are using other functions on their phone.
Writing for The Register, Kieran McCarthy says that “the app will not, as it stands, work all the time on iOS nor Android since version 8. The operating systems won’t allow the tracing application to broadcast its ID via Bluetooth to supporting devices when it’s running in the background and not in active use”, adding that “Apple and Google have refused to allow the tracing app to send out IDs in the background.”
The NHS has said it’s able to make the technology function “sufficiently well”, and the Isle of Wight experiment may expose problems – and give the Government time to correct these.
We’re not as connected as a nation
To add to these issues, the UK is not as technologically sophisticated as South Korea (though the latter is really in a league of its own).
Britain has internet connectivity issues – particularly in remote parts of the country – whereas South Korea has the fastest broadband in the world, and already has 6G technology in its sights (as opposed to the UK, more recently contemplating 5G).
It has been called the “most connected country” in the world, and so it is not surprising that implementing contact tracing has been successful there.
Academics have advised the NHS that 80 per cent of smartphone users – 60 per cent of the population – need to use the app in order for it to work.
Currently, around 67 per cent of the population have downloaded Whatsapp – to give that figure some context.
(The over 70s, who are less likely to use smartphones, do not need to use the app, as they will be shielding.)
Network issues could plague the UK as it extends contact tracing – but optimists will see the Isle of Wight trial as an opportunity to expand our technological capacities.
One unknown variable in implementing South Korean technology here is whether the British people will comply as much with it.
Ministers are currently planning a nationwide campaign, reportedly to tell members of the public “that it is their duty to download the app”.
It remains to be seen – from the Government’s trial in the Isle of Wight – how likely people are to do this.
Data from Singapore, where 20 per cent of the population downloaded its contact tracing app, suggests it can be hard to encourage uptake.
This is part of the reason why the Government has enrolled 18,000 manual contact tracers – to help them roll out the programme.
In due course Britain may need more of tracers, and David Davis, writing on this site, has gone so far as to suggest we need a volunteer army to increase compliance.
(Although to date we have been an extremely compliant nation – in accepting lockdown and social distancing rules.)
And given the speed with which it has sometimes moved – setting up the Nightingale hospitals and building a testing industry from scratch – the Government may be able to adapt the scheme speedily if necessary.